Monday, November 15, 2010

Retirement Planning: Learning to Internalize the Good News

It's easy to find bad news. Retirement planning is built around the notion that we should expect the worst and plan accordingly. few of us do. But the idea is what drives this industry. 

There is good news out there however. But according to a survey done by Mercer, a company who promotes itself as a global leader for trusted HR and related financial advice, products and services, we have yet to internalize this information. We are still cautious, anxious and worried, more than we should be about the continued level of unemployment. These fears are showing up in our approach to retirement, how we treat the investments in our defined contribution plans, and the expectations we have for those accounts.
It's really not much of a surprise that, according to the survey "these fears are amplified among older workers, most of whom realize they are running out of time." The question is: should this be the case in a time of what appears to be economic growth, job stabilization and in spite of the volatility attached to the stock market, improvements worth noting?

This survey reflects on past results suggesting that when the economy does well, the people they surveyed usually express the same feelings. Not so much this time around and the survey suggested this anomaly was unexpected. 

Corporate profits are doing well and compared to a similar survey done last year, the outlook for the economy has improved dramatically. The improvement (21% did not think the economy was doing so hot last year at this time compared to 77% this year) puts the positive outlook at at pre-Great Recession levels.

And despite that, they found some remarkable trends still in place. People still think of retirement the same way - even if they predict they will work longer to get there. They still contribute to their 401(k) type plans - seeing them as the primary source of their income in retirement followed by Social Security and account held outside of the company sponsored plans such as IRAs.

The anxiety reaches much higher levels when it comes to confidence in replacing current income. Most don't feel as though they are doing enough or worse, are capable of doing more. The expectations of replaced income, once at 80% has fallen somewhat as workers have watched the continual erosion of the remaining private sector pensions. Keep in mind, companies have been steadily jettisoning pensions over the last several decades in favor of 401(k) type plans. What was once the promise of a retirement income they could calculate and the employee loyalty needed to get to that point shifted to a plan that was portable and could be used to lure prospective talent.

But those that still have these sorts of defined benefit plans have given their employees the impression that counting on these long awaited benefits may not be the smartest thing to do. In fact, only 19% actually expect the promise to be fulfilled, their companies to remain profitable enough to fund what are widely expected to be shortfalls, or worse, even still be around to keep those promises.

So why do only six out of ten workers suggest that they are not putting enough money away for a retirement they still idolize, even anticipate? They lament the late start. Fifty-seven percent think that they will be able to catch-up. Older workers are now leaning on Social Security as a more important source of income, with some even suggesting that their defined contribution plan will only contribute 26% of their retirement income.

And according to the survey, we are contributing less, across all age groups including the 50-plus worker, than we did in prior years. If we cite this worry about having enough to retire on as the primary reason we lose sleep, it would seem the answer would be obvious - contribute more. But we don't. This may have to do with lackluster company matches or company matches that fly in the face of good advice, such as matching only when the employee buys company stock or a prolonged vesting period that does not actually give the match until the worker has been in the plan for as long as five years.

There have been marginal drops in the amount contributed and participation. Add that to a more cautious approach and you have a retirement recipe for disaster - not just for the worker but for the companies who sponsor these plans. Andrew Yerre, Mercer’s U.S. business leader, says the findings “should cause concern for any plan sponsor who offers a pension plan.”

Are there simple fixes for all of these age groups? Possibly. Ignoring the requirement for matching contributions, even if there is none, should not stop you from embracing the plan and attempting to put as much as is financially possible into it. Understanding that this is not a test, and your retirement is in your hands, more so than it has ever been, should be enough of a catalyst. There needs to be an improved level of aggressive investment among younger workers and some added to older worker's portfolios.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of

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